DNR OKs permit for coal export terminal in Plaquemines Parish

Proposed Coal Terminal
Proposed Coal Terminal

The state Department of Natural Resources approved a coastal use permit Friday for a proposed coal export terminal in Plaquemines Parish, a major step forward for a project that has drawn opposition from environmental and coastal groups and area residents.

The permit states that the facility does not conflict with the state’s coastal restoration plans, despite being located on the same property that the state intends to use for a coastal restoration sediment diversion from the Mississippi River.

“The economic benefits of the project outweigh the anticipated direct impacts to coastal waters and resources, which are small, if any,” according to the “basis of decision” for the permit from DNR’s Office of Coastal Management.

The proposal was opposed by environmental groups, coastal nonprofit groups and local residents at two public hearings in Plaquemines Parish Aug. 14 and Aug. 15. They expressed concerns about pollution and questioned how a coal export terminal could co-exist with a coastal restoration project.

However, before the hearings were held, the state Coastal Restoration and Protection Authority stated that it had come to an agreement with the company, Ram Terminals, LLC, that would allow both the coal export terminal project and coastal restoration project to move forward.

The Coastal Restoration and Protection Authority is the state agency in charge of coastal restoration efforts. Gov. Bobby Jindal signed an executive order in 2008 calling on state agencies to make certain that activities they were involved in were compatible with the restoration and protection master plan’s goal.

Environmental groups pointed to that executive order as reason enough not to approve a coastal use permit for the facility.

“The department has failed in its duty to protect Louisiana’s coast and its people by granting a permit for a highly polluting coal export terminal near Myrtle Grove and Ironton in Plaquemines Parish,” Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, said in a news release from the Clean Gulf Commerce Coalition.

The coalition is made up of eight groups that oppose the construction and expansion of coal export terminals along the Gulf Coast.

LEAN, Christian Ministers Missionary Baptist Association of Plaquemines, and the Sierra Club have already challenged in court the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality’s approval last September of a Clean Air Act permit for the facility.

Ram Terminals applied for the coastal use permit last year to build a coal export facility along the west bank of Plaquemines Parish near Myrtle Grove. The state continues to plan to build a diversion structure in the west bank of the river to take water and sediment from the Mississippi River into the marsh east of the site.

Devin Martin, conservation coordinator for the Sierra Club Delta Chapter, said he had hoped DNR would delay the permit until questions about a number of issues could be answered, including why this was the only location the facility could be built.

“We haven’t had any of that answered,” he said.

Scott Eustis, with the Gulf Restoration Network agreed, “This is pretty disappointing. We’ve got a long way to go in this state if the Master Plan is really a top priority.”

At first, the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority shared some of those concerns. And repressentatives of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Marine Fisheries Service questioned whether both projects could co-exist.

A year of negotiations between the state and Ram Terminals led to an agreement that Jerome Zeringue, executive director for the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said would allow the terminal project to proceed while still protecting the state’s interests in the restoration effort.

He said the state would have said that the coal terminal was inconsistent with the state master plan if it would have forced the state to change the proposed location of the diversion or made it more expensive to build or changed how the diversion would be operated.

At that point, Zeringue said, the permit process would have stopped.

Zeringue said the agreement will allow the state to build and operate the diversion with certain conditions placed on the coal terminal.

Under the agreement, the facility and the diversion can operate normally most of the time. However, when the Mississippi River is flowing at 600,000 cubic feet per second or more at Baton Rouge, the state can implement a “Peak Operating Period” during which the facility can’t operate the terminal.

If the facility does continue to operate, the company would have to pay the state $26,000 a day which is meant to account for possible sediment that wouldn’t have made it into the marsh because of the facility’s activity in the river.

The “Peak Operating Periods” can run no more than 15-days at a stretch. There can be up to five of these called a year, but only one per each 600,000 cfs event.

Zeringue noted that sediment in the river isn’t carried at a consistent basis and the 15-day window will be calculated to occur when the most sediment is expected to be captured by the diversion.

As part of the conditions for DNR granting the coastal use permit, the facility must operate the coal terminal as spelled out in its agreement with the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

There are still several permits the company is required to get before it can start construction of the facility, including permits from the state Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.